“Has anyone ever tried to steal your hair?”


“If you see some Black women, just run the other way.”

Around this time last year, the media outlets were buzzing about the premiere of Chris Rock’s documentary, “Good Hair.” The film exposed the multibillion-dollar hair industry and injected hard-to-swallow truths with comedy. Some critics thought the film skewed perceptions of Black women. Others thought it aired out our “dirty laundry,” while some felt there was no secret in the first place. “Good Hair” might have gotten some laughs and ruffled a few feathers, but what about the lucrative human hair industry that continues to overlook its suppliers?

A quarter of exported Indian hair comes from temples. Women have their heads shaved at temples in a ritual called tonsure in hopes that their prayers will answered. Many of them are clueless that their hair will be collected and then auctioned to hair exporters. In parts of India, the main measure of a woman’s beauty is her hair, thus making it the highest form of sacrifice.

Back in 2008, UK pop singer, Jamelia, went all over the world digging for answers in the BBC documentary, “Whose Hair Is It Anyway?” She spoke with, and observed, various women who decided to tonsure their hair. One woman chose to sacrifice her hair so that her family would not be evicted. Another woman tonsured her hair as a form of thanks for her paralyzed daughter’s full recovery.

One commenter asked on YouTube, “Would people who wear hair extensions still wear it if they know that hair represent love for child, rejection from husband, sacrifice for a roof? If they know where is it coming from? Where is their conscience?” To witness, even onscreen, how willing these women are to shed their beautiful locks in an act so scared is quite inspiring. It does bring into perspective the level of vanity perpetuated by our culture.

The rest of Indian hair comes from shed strands that have been collected during personal grooming. Gupta Group, one of the largest distributors of Indian hair, explains on their website that the woman are given “some toys, hair clips, etc.” in exchange. Some hair collectors go through the garbage for discarded hair and then sell the tangled bundles to factories. In the documentary, Jamelia asks one family of hair collectors what they thought of women purchasing their disposed hair. “Only if you guys buy it, we can make our living,” one woman explains.

Back at a temple-hair manufacturer, one factory manager assures Jamelia that the women wouldn’t want compensation and that it was purely sacrifice. Some extensions companies do guarantee that ethical measures are being taken. Great Lengths, for example, gets its hair from the Tirumala Hindu temple, and ensures that the money is redirected into the community to fund schools, orphanages and hospitals. (Find a Great Lengths salon here http://www.hairuwear.com/gl.aspx?pgID=946.) In some cases, the temples use the profits to help feed people in need.

Unfortunately, such ethical hair extensions companies are a rarity. And while some of the profits do make their way back to the communities and help some families make a living, many in the community remain poverty-stricken.

According to Carmen K. Iezzi, director of the Fair Trade Federation (an association that advocates transparency in commerce and fair pay to impoverished suppliers) the human hair business is worth examining. Producers should not be treated as the least valuable part of the supply chain, Iezzi told the Denver Post. Consumers have the power to change that by asking that the products they enjoy meet Fair Trade standards, she added.

So where does this leave us? And what changes are you willing to make this time around? Would you switch to synthetic hair? Dish out more money for extensions from an ethical company? Stop sporting weaves all together? Pressure companies to meet Fair Trade standards? Get angry but move on?

Or are you too far removed from the issue to even care?

– Audra E. Lord

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